College community gathers in Pulver after swastika discovered in AMS elevator

by Sonia Lachter

On March 5, a drawing of a swastika was found in an elevator in Anthony-Mitchell-Schup (AMS) residence hall. The discovery comes just two weeks after a different swastika was found scratched into an elevator in Dana residence hall on February 19.

College President David Greene sent an email to the College community notifying them of the incident. The email– which was also signed by Provost Margaret McFadden and Dean Karlene Burrell-McRae ’94– announced a gathering scheduled for the following day in Pulver Pavilion. The email explained that the purpose of the gathering was to “demonstrate our shared commitment to rejecting these cowardly acts and to supporting all members of our community who justifiably feel outraged and distressed.”

The gathering was led by Rabbi Erica Asch, Hillel Advisor and Jewish Chaplain and Reverend Chrissy Cataldo, Interim Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life. Cataldo, who is working part-time to fill the role of incumbent Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life Kurt Nelson, is also a pastor at Winthrop Congregational Church.

About 800 people attended the 1994 rally against anti-semitism. The event featured both student and faculty speakers.

In an interview with the Echo, Cataldo described being contacted by Dean Burrell-McRae to organize a public response with Asch. Explaining the impetus behind the gathering, Cataldo commented, “in our experience here, the students who have felt the most targeted by stuff like this, students in Hillel, students who are served by the Pugh Center, are frustrated and exhausted by this. And so we wanted to make some space where people could be mad together but also join together because we have seen, in the past two years in particular, incidences of hate speech just go up consistently around the country. And when you’re bombarded like that all the time, you need to find a way to be resilient.”

The gathering began with a song and with Rabbi Asch sharing a story from the Jewish Midrash, a body of text made up of commentary of the Torah, about the biblical character Miriam. Asch began her story by narrating, “The Israelites were living in slavery [in Egypt] and that was a horrible experience for them. They felt beaten down, they felt tired, they felt like they didn’t have any hope.” Asch continued to describe how Pharaoh, the leader of Egypt, decreed that all of the Israelite boys should be killed and how Miriam’s father, Amram responded, saying, “‘That’s it. I’m divorcing my wife, and all of the men should divorce their wives because we shouldn’t have any more children. Because it’s just hopeless.’”

Asch relayed that Miriam responded by telling Amram that even though Pharaoh had condemned all Jewish boys to death, Amram had condemned all Jewish children. Amram took Miriam’s advice which eventually resulted in the birth of Moses, the deliverer of the Israelites from their slavery.

Asch concluded her teaching by reflecting, “I think this story teaches us that even in times of great sorrow, first of all, wisdom comes from all corners, places that we might not expect it. And, second of all, we have to stay in relationship with one another. We have to find hope with one another. We have to find commonality with one another. We have to keep going even though we feel beaten down and I think that that is a great message for us today.”

Rabbi Asch then invited the gathered community to join with others and discuss the question of “What do you want to move towards?” The gathering closed with a singing of “This Little Light of Mine.” The two leaders also announced an event scheduled for Friday, March 8 in the Pugh Center.

Students of the College held a rally on Miller Lawn on April 15, 1994 to unite the campus against anti-semitic hate crimes.

Cataldo said that the gathering was developed to not just provide “a place to be mad…but also a place to talk about what we want to move toward next, and so that’s why we asked the people gathered to talk about what they were looking towards…So it was really good to hear people who wanted to move towards a community that’s more connected, where people know each other better, but also are looking for accountability and are invested in finding a way to make sure that when people do hateful things like this that are intended to make people afraid and angry that there’s accountability on campus.”

This sentiment to move towards a more connected community seems to have been the inspiration behind the event in the Pugh Center on Friday, March 8. Cataldo remarked that in her work as a minister, she has found that “resilience is built not just by coming together around things that make us angry or hurt us but also in more joyful spaces and in spaces that can be lighter. So, Rabbi Asch and I both realized that the students we work with regularly are tired…And so we wanted to give time to be together in a more joyful way, because without times of connection and joy, you don’t have the relationships to help you sustain a struggle against bigotry and oppression and anti-semitism and racism and sexism, all the -isms, right?”

Addressing her role in responding to this particular incident, Cataldo reflected that “white Christian communities don’t always feel like it’s their place to respond. But, I don’t believe that. As a Christian, I don’t believe that my faith keeps me out of the world, it helps me be in the world as a force for good.”

Cataldo addressed the idea of installing more cameras in public spaces on campus which she observed is being discussed by students and staff alike, Cataldo affirmed, “This is the least amount of cameras I’ve seen on a campus this size…in shared spaces like elevators, I think the security benefits outweigh the risks…And I’m seeing that students who do live here [are] asking for that level of commitment. And so I’m inclined to take the lead of the people who live here who are willing to have a step up in places that seem appropriate.”

Security is a common theme of any response to an incident involving swastikas. Olivia*, a Jewish student at the College, told the Echo in an interview that for swastika-related or anti-semitic incidents, her personal sense of safety “depends on the situation. I’ve had times where I think, ‘Ok, it’s just somebody playing a prank and it’s not a big deal, get over it.’ And other times where it really impacts my sense of safety and sense of feeling comfortable to fully be who I am, and I think the second, the latter of those two rang more true this time.”

Olivia, when asked what a swastika means to her, responded, “To me, a swastika in simple terms means ‘I hate you for who you are and I want you dead.’” However, incidents involving swastikas aren’t always the most hurtful or even most numerous encounters with anti-semitism at the College for Olivia. Thinking back on her time at the College, she noted that “There have been various situations with swastikas throughout my time, but I think the [incidents] that have really hit home for me are sort of those more microaggressions.”

A search of the Special Collections’ Echo Archives shows that there have been a number of anti-semitic incidents at the College since 1984. In 1984, one member of the College community wrote in a letter to the editor about a student who “displayed a sign that labeled President Cotter as a fascist and emphasized his accusati3.on by displaying a swastika” at a groundbreaking ceremony for Cotter Union. In 1986, Professor Sandy Maisel wrote to the editor on the topic of “students who carried signs with swastikas and SS emblems and those who greeted the College’s president with a Nazi salute.” Lisa Finkelman wrote in 1988 that in college her “first rude awakening was seeing the words ‘Fucking Jews’ accompanied by a swastika on a blackboard.”

The 1990’s saw “Swastikas and sexist insults…scrawled on the walls of the stairwells in Foss,” and sixteen separate incidents in 1994, one of which included the phrases “Hitler Lives!” and “Jews Die!” which prompted an FBI investigation. Other incidents included: “a racial epithet and a swastika in the first-floor Woodman [dormitory] hallway” on a poster of Student Activities, President Josh Woodfork ’97 and President Cotter who, “spray painted obscenities and a swastika” in the College’s Woodsmen’s Cabin in 1997, and “a 10-by-10 inch swastika inscribed into a wall” in a Pugh center second floor bathroom

In 2001, Kaitlin McCafferty wrote about a swastika found in the Pub, in 2005 Ben Herbst wrote about vandalism of boards in Coburn residence hall which included a swastika, and in 2010 Sarah Lyon reported on a swastika scratched in a table in Foss dining hall.

Most recently, a swastika was spray painted onto a rock in the parking lot of Quarry Road (which is off-campus in Waterville) in 2016, a 15 foot by 15 foot swastika was stomped in the snow between Johnson Pond and Piper Hall in 2018, and a swastika was discovered in an elevator in Dana residence hall in February 0f 2019.

Cataldo had examples of swastikas and incidents in Maine in general since she moved here in 2014. She recalled that in 2016, “there was [Ku Klux] Klan literature passed around neighborhoods in Augusta and here in Waterville” and similar cases in places like Gardiner, Augusta, and Freeport. In 2017, “There was a swastika carved into a golf course in one of our neighboring towns from our church.” And, in 2018, the town of Jackman “found out that their town manager, which is kind of like a mayor, is an active white supremacist…They fired him eventually.”

These trends of anti-semitism, especially as expressed through the imagery of the swastika, are frequent and long-lasting in Maine and at Colby. As noted in coverage of last month’s swastika incident, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), an organization which combats hate, found in its 2017 Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents that from 2016 to 2017 there was a nearly 60 percent increase in anti-Semitic acts, “the largest single-year increase on record and the second highest number reported since ADL started tracking incident data in the 1970s.” Hopefully, members of this country, this state, and this College can reckon seriously with Asch and Cataldo’s question of “What do you want to move towards?”

*name changed for anonymity